“Life moves on, whether or not we are a part of it.”
This season of Vikings has invoked the ghost of Ragnar Lothbrok again and again, but, in “Baldur,” we finally see it. Like every episode since the death of Ragnar Lothbrok, characters are defined—by themselves and others—by their relationship to the late explorer, conqueror, and king. Magnus, inadvertently chafing resentful patron Harald at the wedding of Bjorn and Gunnhild, drunkenly toasts to his supposed half-brother, “The most famous man in the world!” Torvi echoes the phrase art episode’s end, when she and Ubbe go alone to negotiate with the three invading Danish kings in their fortified English headquarters. As the assembled, fearsome Norse warriors all begin to chant his name in martial unison, Torvi says to her husband, with wifely irony, “You’re famous.” Being a son of Ragnar Lothbrok comes yoked to fame, for good or ill.
Hvitserk gets a taste of both, as his mission to shore up the alliance between Ivar and the aptly named King Olaf The Stout (new cast addition, veteran scene-stealer Steven Berkoff) sees him frostbitten, ordered to strip naked by Olaf’s wryly imperious dwarf attendant (Conn Rogers), and led into a sweltering sauna, where the mountainously nude Olaf, unimpressed visage swimming out of the steam, greets him as “another son of Ragnar.” Harald, menacingly congratulating Bjorn on having won the ambitious and formidable Gunnhild despite Harald’s promise to make her his queen of all Norway, can only fume when Bjorn lays out Harald’s perpetual also-ran status. “You will never be Ragnar, and you will never be king of Norway,” Bjorn tells his uneasy ally plainly, “It is in the gift of the gods.” For all his complicated feelings about being, himself, always in his father’s shadow, Bjorn accepts that his father’s legacy has changed the world they all now live in.
As that legacy has been splintered among his four remaining sons (RIP, Sigurd; we’re not buying it, Magnus), Ivar has taken Bjorn’s acceptance of Ragnar’s divine favor to its darkest extreme. “Baldur” essentially closes the book on Ivar’s descent into true evil, as his faith in his own godhood is first used to countenance arguably his most monstrous act yet, and then shaken to the core by an even greater one. Ivar and Floki have become mirror images in reaction to Ragnar’s dreams of exploration, expansion, and accumulated, integrated knowledge. Floki’s innate revulsion toward otherness saw him striking out with a band of seemingly like-minded disciples on an ill-fated holy quest to please the Norse gods by creating an isolated, “pure” Viking society. Ivar, tonight railing once more against the “strangers” and “the outsiders who threaten us,” to the stubbornly skeptical Thora, responds to the young woman’s apparent vandalism of his statue by having her burned alive, along with her entire family. It’s not clear if Thora actually did the impressively ostentatious desecration herself (the huge monument is split neatly in half, with a pig’s head nailed to one side), but, for the now utterly monomaniacal Ivar, her lack of faith in his implacable will is enough.
However, Ivar is not a god. So when Freydis finally gives birth to their son later in the episode, the sight of the infant’s unseen deformities leaves him in pieces. At least until he chooses to do what he blames his father for not doing, and leaves his cooing new son, named Baldur, exposed to the elements in a hollowed tree stump in the dead of night. Alex Høgh has never been better on Vikings than here, as we watch the shattered Ivar yet convince himself that, in killing his child, he is both sparing the boy a lifetime of pain, and surpassing his father’s greatness in having the strength to do so. (Sure, Ragnar eventually did choose to sacrifice the crippled Ivar according to Viking custom, but he did grow to love and care for the child after Aslaug redeemed him.) Tearfully telling his son, “I cannot allow you to suffer what I have suffered throughout my life,” Ivar yet couches his horrifying decision in the self-serving self-pity of all would-be despots, confessing, “I thought you would make everything perfect,” and pronouncing the child’s fate by acknowledging that—in defiance of Freydis’ maniacal assurance that “deformity is a true sign of the gods’ favor”—Baldur’s imperfections will be a political liability. As Ivar crawls away through the cold night, he pauses in wrenching indecision at Baldur’s cries, but only for a moment. “You’ll have to make your own way in life, Baldur, my boy,” Ivar the Boneless pronounces, crawling away back to his kingdom.
That leaves Ubbe. Sent by Alfred to lead the English forces against the armies of three Danish kings, Ubbe carries the suspicion of the men under his command alongside our skepticism about his own abilities to carry on Ragnar’s legacy of bold and creative victory-snatching. Alfred, perhaps in flattery, once pronounced Ubbe closest to his illustrious father in abilities and bearing, and Jordan Patrick Smith does, indeed, favor Travis Fimmel’s younger Ragnar more than the hulking Bjorn (who may actually be the son of Rollo), ice-eyed, black-haired Ivar, or the lank and callow Hvitserk. But “Baldur” is the first time we see glimmers of that quality that Bjorn summed up as, essentially, the gods’ favor.
Defying the glares of his dubious commanders, Ubbe and Torvi ride alone to the Danish camp, where they allow themselves to be taken by boat to see the three kings. Completely cut off and defenseless in the enemy camp with only his wits and brawn to save him is a Ragnar move, and Ubbe’s is a Ragnar-esque gambit—to offer the Danes a share of the East Anglian lands negotiated for the Norse by Ragnar, and finally claimed by royal decree by his son, Ubbe. The parallels extend to Torvi’s role here, too, as the sight of an unafraid, outspoken shieldmaiden backing Ubbe’s play recalls the glory days when Norse power couple Ragnar and Lagertha rode into impossible battles together. Sure, Torvi’s no Lagertha, and Ubbe’s no Ragnar, but that’s the point—memory grants great figures of the past greater stature, and those who follow inevitably pale in comparison. It’s a theme this fifth season has tangled with, to greater and lesser effect. But both Torvi and Ubbe hold their own, with Torvi managing to surprise her husband with words of undying love in the face of possible, violent doom. “I never thought I would hear a woman say that,” smiles Ubbe with Ragnar’s sly smile playing across his face. “Everyone can be wrong, even you,” is Torvi’s rejoinder, the ghost of Lagertha ringing in the moment before the kings come back with their response. Two wish to go with Ubbe’s plan. One refuses. Ubbe challenges him to trial by combat to settle the matter. Ragnar’s ghost, too, lives in Ubbe’s untroubled countenance.
Lagertha herself has been missing since her defeat against Ivar’s forces. At least until “Baldur,” where Judith, fled to the desperate ministrations of a hovel-dwelling old woman by whatever it was she was seen inspecting on her torso last episode, hears the stirring of a white-haired, seemingly mad woman in the corner. It’s Lagertha, moaning, and raggedy, and scarred, and apparently quite mad.
Lagertha has been buffeted about this season, less by fate or misfortune than by an unsatisfyingly bland and misguided conception of what to do with the former queen of Kattegat. The love story with the dashing but stolid Heahmund left her playing supporting girlfriend on a series that should, by right of time invested and natural right, been hers to carry. And seeing her disheveled and undone by the crushing defeat of her forces (thanks to Rollo’s timely intervention) at first plays like yet another betrayal. (For one thing, she, coming to her senses back in Wessex, first asks about the dead Heahmund.) And yet.
“Baldur” sees characters walking away, just as, it appears, Vikings walks away with them from some paths that have proven less than fruitful this season. In the aftermath of Ivar’s victory, Lagertha’s disappearance, Ubbe’s conversion and alliance, Bjorn’s sullen moping, and the dissolution of Floki’s settlement, there’s been a lull, during which, it seems, both the show and the characters within it have decided that enough is enough. For Lagertha, it appears her new road runs through madness, which—as unlikely and in some ways unpalatable a reaction as it is to those who remember who she was prior to this season—at least promises some sort of more Lagertha-like rebirth. (To be fair, she did stab her pregnant former lover to death, watch her present lover skewered to death in front of her, and lose a war.)
For the second time, the image of the avenging Valkyrie is invoked around her, which, again, isn’t good news for Ivar. And, finding herself alone with Judith and Queen Elsewith, the recovered but still haunted Lagertha strikes notes of empowered steeliness that recalls her wonted demeanor. When Judith—using valuable lapis lazuli dye to color the manuscript in front of her—explains that its precious hue is used to show how the Virgin Mary’s value comes from Christ’s reflected glory, Lagertha dips her fingers into the paint and colors the unmoving Judith’s face. Judith has just revealed that she has a lump in her breast, and knows she’s likely to die from it. (And that she murdered son Aethelred.) Lagertha, having confessed earlier that she is, finally, without her shield in her lonely exile, tells her, “You’ve been a warrior like me in your own way. But I don’t agree with you. There are still many things for us to discover on the other side of the shield wall.”
Floki, too, is done. Confronted by the now fully villainous Kjetill over the Floki-dug grave of Kjetill’s daughter Aud, Floki denies Kjetill’s wild-eyed taunt to murder him in revenge for having slaughtered Eyvind’s entire family. Floki—after spelling out in truly horrifying detail just how the old Floki would have carried out such vengeance—fixes the hulking warrior with the old Floki’s even, glinting madness and tells him:
But you see, I won’t do any of that. For even though you and Eyvind and everyone else in this cursed settlement have showed me that I can’t change other human beings, I have changed myself. And I intend to stay this way. I owe it to the dead. Do with this place as you like. I’m done with the humans.
If Floki’s rejection of Ragnar’s dream was similar to Ivar’s, his alternative was utopian, rather than despotic. Now that it lies in ruins, he yet remains true to his beliefs, even as he calls out to the gods who have seemingly abandoned him, “I am filled with hope.” Pledging himself to go down to Hel itself, the episode ends with Floki, a cloud of inexplicable winter insects swarming around his amazed face, staring into the gaping mouth of a cave, the cold breath of the wind from its depths seeming to fulfill his desire to burrow down deeper in search of the truth he’d nearly abandoned. That there is yet some truth to be found in the voice of his people.
But it’s the voice of Ragnar that finds “Baldur” reaching back to Vikings’ often glorious past so strikingly. Not just others’ memories of Ragnar, or the dubious, cross-ocean sound of Ragnar’s dying curse reaching his sons back in Kattegat, but the actual Ragar, in the person of the actual Travis Fimmel. As Lagertha feverishly dreams after her retrieval by Judith, she has an effectively haunting vision of Ragnar’s death, complete with herself cast as King Aelle pronouncing Ragnar’s doom. The sight of the tortured, burned, and bloodied Ragnar, fiercely pronouncing his poisoned malediction to the doomed Aelle about the vengeance that will follow his violent demise is breathtaking stuff—the fact of Fimmel’s unexpected reappearance aside. As the pale Lagertha hears Ragnar’s final rage about the Valkyries welcoming him into Valhalla, she is granted one final vision of the young Ragnar and herself in bed, in love. “My death comes without apology!,” spits the ravaged Ragnar, just before the fall. When Lagertha awakes, it’s with that defiance ringing in her ears, an auspicious sign for her, and, one expects, for Vikings.
- It’s really only a matter of time before some Viking takes a battleaxe to the puppylike wannabe Norseman, Magnus. Tonight, the smarting Harald was simply in no mood, but he forbears, and the possible son of Ragnar lives to high-five his Viking brothers another day.
- As Elsewith cries that she cannot bear the news of Judith’s illness, Lagertha strides forward, telling the queen lightly, “You are young. You can bear anything.”
- It’s a full 20 minutes before we see Wessex, and that’s just so that Judith can discover Lagertha. Consequently, Judith—and Vikings—is greatly improved.
- Hvitserk continues his bubble-headed but sincere interest in Buddhism, his sauna-muddied mind seeing him refer to the big-bellied Olaf as the Buddha.
- Later, after being strung up in that same sauna for pitching that Olaf throw over his alliance with Ivar, the exhausted and delirious Hvitserk is reprieved when Olaf reconsiders. Lying at the feet of his own personal Buddha, Hvitserk hears the burly king speak of sympathy and control—before announcing that he will join with Hvitserk to take Kattegat.